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Even though it’s only one item on your application, taking a graduate admissions test can be one of the most stressful parts of applying to grad school. But don’t worry—we’re here to help you navigate it.

Because grade point averages are difficult to standardize across undergraduate colleges, tests like the GRE and others offer graduate schools a way to assess applicants. The knowledge you need to do well on these exams may not be entirely related to your ability to excel in graduate school, but they can provide admissions officers with another reference of your abilities.

What tests are required for grad school admission?

Standardized tests are long exams designed to assess your aptitude and ability to succeed in graduate school. They may include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Miller Analogies Test (MAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and others.

There’s also the Executive Assessment test that is geared specifically toward MBA programs, and may replace the need for you to submit a GRE or GMAT test score. Typically, you won’t have to take more than one or two of these exams to apply to a program.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many graduate programs to evaluate whether these types of standardized tests are necessary for prospective students to take, there are still many schools that require you to submit your scores. For this reason, it’s important to check the test requirements of grad programs you’re interested in attending well before the application deadline.

How will graduate schools consider my scores?

While the exam scores themselves are standardized, not every admissions committee will view them in the same way—determine their score target ranges or a median score for last year’s accepted class. Having this range in mind can give you guidance as you assess your performance on practice tests.

You will also want to confirm how your graduate schools will count your scores if you decide to take the exam more than once. Retaking a test can be a good idea; many people find their scores improve a second time because they have a better sense of what to expect from the exam.

That said, each program may have their own view on taking the exam more than once, so it’s important to confirm with specific admissions offices. Graduate schools may also assess your scores from multiple exams in different ways. Some may average the scores together, only count a single set of scores, or take the highest scores from either test as a combined best score.

For reference, GRE scores on a point scale:

  • A Verbal Reasoning score is reported on a 130–170 score scale, in 1-point increments.
  • A Quantitative Reasoning score is reported on a 130–170 score scale, in 1-point increments.
  • An Analytical Writing score is reported on a 0–6 score level, in half-point increments.

What can I do to prepare for these exams?

Take a test prep course

  • Well-known test prep companies like Kaplan or the Princeton Review provide structured group courses to prepare you for these exams. These courses are often on the pricier side, but they do offer helpful practice tests and focused instruction time.
  • If you’re currently an undergraduate, your college may provide free or discounted resources to help you study for the GRE or other popular exams. Your career center, financial aid office, or academic advisor is likely to have more information about what options are available to you.

Join a study group

  • Gather your graduate school-bound friends for study groups to help each other stay accountable.
  • If your peers aren’t planning to take these exams, there are often study groups through social platforms like Meetup or StudyPal.

Study with a private tutor

  • If you think one-on-one guidance may provide the best test prep support, it may be worthwhile to find a private tutor.
  • A tutor may be someone more informal like someone you know who’s already passed the GRE/LSAT/MCAT, a local professor tutoring on the side for extra income, or a full-time professional tutor.
  • You can look up professional tutoring companies in your area, or check online listings.

No matter how you choose to prepare, it’s a good idea to purchase or borrow test prep books from your library or friend. Try to access the most recent versions since they will reflect recent changes made to the exams. Resources like these typically include sample tests, or you can search relevant practice tests online. 

How to take the test

If you register for a computer-based test, you can take the exam at a local testing center. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) website will have the most updated list of where to take the exam and what times may be available. As you make your testing appointments, keep in mind:

  • It’s advantageous to schedule an appointment far in advance. Test centers get especially booked as graduate school deadlines near.
  • Consider when you feel most alert and at your mental best—are you a morning or afternoon person? Does the time of your exam give you enough time to have a meal or snack beforehand?

Sending your test scores to schools

Sending policies may vary depending on the exam, so be sure to review the ETS instructions directly for the most updated and applicable information. Typically, you can select a few schools to send your scores to for free and then pay a fee for each additional recipient.

As you start your grad program search, keep your career goals top of mind to motivate you through the application process. We know you’ll find the right grad program for you, and we wish you all the best as you begin studying and preparing for these exams.


Planning on returning to school? Check out our Grad School Resources and connect directly with social-impact programs through Idealist.

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Angel Eduardo

Angel uses his skills as a storyteller to support and inspire job seekers and aspiring social-impact professionals.